Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the Day of the Dead?
A: The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) is a holiday most commonly celebrated in Mexico on the first and second day of November. The holiday represents a synthesis of indigenous (pre-Hispanic, namely Aztec) beliefs and Christian religious traditions (specifically, the Roman Catholic feasts of All Saints' and All Souls' Day). The Day of the Dead offers its celebrators an opportunity to honor their ancestors and deceased loved ones by creating altars (ofrendas) in their memory. In addition to the construction of ofrendas, other common Day of the Dead practices include the cleaning and decorating of family gravesites, the preparation of special foods and beverages, the recitation of prayers on behalf of the deceased, and the attendance of Catholic Mass. Some Day of the Dead festivals also include singing, dancing, picnicking, nocturnal vigils, games, and kite-flying (Marchi 2013). According to Congdon, Delgado-Trunk and Lopez (1999), the Day of the Dead is one of the most important celebrations in Mexico, surpassed only by festivities recognizing the Madonna of Guadalupe .
Q: What is an ofrenda?
A: “An ofrenda is a shrine or altar space that acts as a memorial or tribute to one who has died. It is a powerful cultural expression, practiced in many parts of Mexico, that allows exploration of ideas related to life, death, family, ritual, and meaning” (Congdon, Delgado-Trunk, and Lopez 1999: 312).
Q: What is with the dancing? How does that relate to the Day of the Dead?
A: With this large street performance we are attempting to draw a ritualistic parallel to comparsas, or a procession of street performers found in certain regional celebrations of the Day of the Dead.
Q: Ofrenda exhibits, dancing zombies... Where are you getting these ideas?
A: In planning this event, we are taking cues from the Detroit Institute of Arts, from Michigan neighborhoods that have embraced the Dia de los Muertos tradition, and from a number of other American cities that have incorporated Thriller performances, Zombie Walks, parades, folk art festivals, and other public events into their seasonal celebrations.
Q: How does this event benefit the participant? The community?
A: Recognizing that participation in a cultural activity can help forge social connections and reduce prejudice, we hope that
by learning about and creating ofrendas, people may gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for Latin-American culture; in taking the time to remember their own departed loved ones and persons of importance, participants may also find comfort, gain a greater sense of self, or bring awarenss to a pressing social issue.
by viewing various takes on the ofrenda individuals may feel inspired to be curious, to ask questions, and to consider the myriad ways in which death and the dead are treated cross-culturally (e.g., are they feared, revered, joked about or avoided?).
by taking part in a public dance performance, individuals will HAVE FUN and connect to our wonderful Albion community.
All conversations are valuable. Fun, nostalgic anecdotes about the deceased, imagery that pays solem tribute, iconography that confronts and satirizes death, and representations that evoke the taboo all result in an educational experience. They invite both self-reflection and a sense of social cohesion as ideas are shared, supported, and considered.
Q. How is the Day of the Dead similar to, or different from, Halloween?
A: Good question! I hope you’re ready for a not-so short answer:
The Day of the Dead and Halloween are similar in that they are both festivals that emphasize death. And, they are both a result of syncretism—that is, the fusing of two cultural traditions. But, where the Day of the Dead has its origins in the Aztec culture, who set aside an entire month to honor the deceased, Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic New Year’s festival called Samhain.
Samhain was traditionally celebrated on November 1, the day when Celts believed that the gates separating the world of the living from the land of the dead were temporarily opened, allowing souls to pass through. This and other local religious beliefs were redefined with the conversion of Ireland to Christianity in 300-400 CE. Thereafter, November 1 became a day to honor the Christian Saints (All Saints Day). The day before All Saints Day became known as “the Eve of All Saints” or “the Even of All Hallows,” which was later shortened to “All Hallows' Eve” or “Halloween.” Around 900 CE, the Catholic Church added the holiday of All Soul’s Day on November 2nd to pray for the souls of all people who died during the past year. Together, Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls day constituted a triduum, or three-day religious celebration, called Allhallowtide which retained many of the traditional Celtic beliefs and customs, such as the offering of food and drink to masked revelers, the idea that night was a time for the wandering dead, and the lighting of fires to guide the souls on their way.
Celebrations of Allhallowtide have varied over the years, especially after ideas about wandering souls changed following the Protestant Reformation. Fun fact: it was during the era of reformation and counter-reformation that the Spanish set out to establish the Americas as a "refuge for the Catholic faith" (Congon, Delgado-Trunk, and Lopez 1999: 316). So, had the Celts not inspired the Catholic Allhallowtide several hundred years earlier, the Spanish might not have taken this tradition with them when they colonized the New World. The two holidays are connected in this sense.
Today, the many denominations of Christianity engage diversely with Halloween. While some use this day as an occasion to pray beside the graves of their loved ones, others have Reformation Festivals that celebrate the anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. But, for the majority of Americans, Halloween has become a secular holiday.
And here is another key difference between Halloween and the Day of the Dead: While Halloween is a mostly secular day of costumes and candy, the Day of the Dead remains for many a spiritual celebration associated with the Catholic faith and the sacred traditions of Indigenous Mesoamerica. What is more, the Day of the Dead has served as a vehicle for sociopolitical activism among Mexicans and Mexican Americans and is a symbol of Mexican heritage (indeed, it is included in UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity!). Given its unique historical trajectory, the Day of the Dead bears a social significance that sets it distinctly apart from Halloween. You can learn more about the history and significance of the Day of the Dead by attending a public lecture on October 25th at 1:00 pm in the auditorium of the Bobbitt Visual Arts Center.